Susceptible to Scratches by Nancy Ludmerer

Nancy Ludmerer is the 3rd place winner in Streetlight’s 2021 Flash Fiction Contest

Photo of key on string
Photo by Konstantin Evdokimov on Unsplash

Before the pandemic, the desk had been his province exclusively since only he worked from home, but in their forced togetherness, they had to share it. He bragged about how he and Marnie, his ex-wife, rescued the desk during a snowstorm, when the Northwestern Law School Library replaced its wooden desks with metal ones. Had they not taken it, the desk would have been brought to the town dump, to be scavenged by humans or animals unknown.

The desk was not without flaws. It bore round marks from water glasses and sharp narrow furrows left by pens or protractors. Still, the work area was deep and wide and the legs square and sturdy. The wood was a mix of grains: wavy, herringbone, copper-colored, buffed to soft beige in places. It smelled of deep forest and smoke, as dark and unknowable as his life was before they met.

They had been married only a few months when everything changed.

Although she liked the desk’s woodsy aroma, when she reached inside the sole drawer, she felt grit and dust. The drawer stuck dangerously, suggesting that if one grabbed the chipped knobs too enthusiastically, it might come out altogether. None of that bothered him, he didn’t even notice, but she wanted to clean the inside. She wanted the drawer to run smoothly on its casters. She found a guide to handling old wood furniture, which recommended honest and sympathetic treatment. That gave her hope. She was both honest and sympathetic. The guide’s instructions, however, were all about treating the outside of the desk, not the inside. How to avoid spills and wet rings before they became indelible; how regular dusting would prevent airborne particles from leaving a film that could scratch the surface; what type of cloth to use for dusting, cloth diapers being particularly recommended. Even with the best care, injuries can happen.

She veered from hope to despair and back again, sometimes multiple times a day.

Finally, she dampened paper towels with a mild solution of water and dish detergent and reached in to clean, and then dry, the inside of the drawer. She applied negligible amounts of WD-40 so it rolled effortlessly on its bed. When checking the deep recesses of the drawer for dirt, she found a folded page. It contained no revelations or intimacies exchanged between her husband and his ex, only Northwestern Law Library Rules: patrons should not harass or annoy others; sleeping and eating were prohibited; animals and unattended children would be reported to the County Sheriff. Those instructions had remained, hidden and undisturbed, during the decade of her husband’s first marriage.

She had wondered if she would ever feel comfortable using the desk. Now her heart lightened. In truth she had no choice. Besides, there was an engraved “N” on the drawer, for Northwestern, between the two chipped but serviceable knobs.

“N” was her initial, not his and not Marnie’s.

And so, she laid claim to the desk and to him.


Nancy Ludmerer
Nancy Ludmerer’s flash fiction appears in Best Small Fictions 2016 (a River Styx prizewinner), Electric Literature, New Orleans Review, Mid-American Review, Vestal Review, and other great places. Her longer stories have appeared in Kenyon Review, Litro, Cimarron Review, Carve (where A Simple Case won the fiction prize in Carve‘s 2019 Prose & Poetry Contest), Pulp Literature, and Masters Review: New Voices. Her short memoir Kritios Boy (Literal Latte) was named a notable essay in Best American Essays 2015. She lives in New York City with her husband Malcolm and their recently adopted twelve-year-old cat, Joseph.

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One thought on “Susceptible to Scratches by Nancy Ludmerer”

  1. I loved all the telling details about the desk–how they found it, why it was dumpted, its condition, how to care for it–and about how the wife was determined to work with it until she decided how she felt about it. I enjoyed the surprise ending. It confirmed my impression of the wife as doing whatever she had to do to make her marriage work for her.

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